Home Column: A Harsh Reality for First-Year Head Coaches

Column: A Harsh Reality for First-Year Head Coaches

by Connor Jackson

Photo courtesy of Texas athletics

In Nick Saban’s first year, Alabama lost to Lousiana-Monroe at home, 21-14.

In Kirby Smart’s first year as the head coach at Georgia, the Bulldogs lost to both Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt. Both of those coaches suffered at least five losses in their debut seasons as their current schools.

Fortunately, historic recruiting efforts by those two prevented anything remotely close to that from happening again. Still, it shows that being a first-year head coach in college football comes with challenges, especially at a big program with large expectations.

There are other early blunders from new head coaches along the way as well, such as Jimbo Fisher going 3-7 against ranked teams in his first two seasons. Or Urban Meyer losing 31-3 to Alabama as a top-5 team in 2005.

This year, Bryan Harsin at Auburn and Steve Sarkisian at Texas have received those moments.

Auburn is coming off a historic game against Mississippi State. By historic, we mean that Auburn just allowed the largest comeback in school history. Auburn was up 28-3 until the Bulldogs scored 40 unanswered to eventually knock off the Tigers, 43-34.

From a questionable decision on a two-point conversion attempt late in the game and blowing a 25-point lead, it might have been the lowest moment in Harsin’s head coaching career. Regardless, it is a wakeup call for Harsin, who is in his first year coaching in the SEC.

No lead is ever safe in the SEC; if you take your foot off the gas, you might never be able to put it back on. Auburn’s meltdown against Mississippi State is not the only example of that.

Harsin is 6-4 so far in his first year. When you compare that with other first-year head coaches, he is on track to be one of the best. He led Auburn to its first win at LSU in 22 years, and knocked off two ranked opponents in Arkansas and Ole Miss.

Still, that did not stop Auburn fans from slandering their new head man. Check any message board and you will see it. Posts calling for his firing received multiple dozen upvotes, followed by more hateful replies.

For Sarkisian at Texas, it is no different.

Texas fired Tom Herman, a coach who never had a losing season in Austin and went 4-0 in bowl games, to hire Sarkisian. Naturally, Texas fans expected immediate success. Can you really blame them? After all, it seemed like the Herman era was starting to turn the corner.

Well, Texas is 4-6, and in danger of not making a bowl game. Those six losses included blowouts to Arkansas and Iowa State. Most recently, the Longhorns lost 57-56 at home in overtime to a Kansas team that was 1-8 and had not won a Big 12 road game since the George W. Bush administration.

Video of defensive line coach Bo Davis yelling at his players after the Iowa State loss and begging them to transfer should tell you all you need to know about the state of the program.

Most of these players on these teams have never been recruited by these new coaches — let alone play for them. You are going to have players that don’t fully grasp the new culture, even if they say they do. Adjusting to new schemes on the field is also a major part of the issue.

Trying to balance immediate success and building a culture is the biggest challenge for new head coaches. One example is Geoff Collins at Georgia Tech. Collins has hyped up building a new culture at Georgia Tech for what seems like forever now, but only has a 9-23 record to show for it.

Is the state of Georgia Tech’s program the issue? Or is Collins simply not the guy?

Success is expected immediately, but is unrealistic in most cases. At Auburn and Texas, the expectations are to win championships. Both of those programs have a rich and relatively recent history of doing so.

Harsin and Sarkisian however, are still working on getting their guys in and implementing their culture. With the transfer portal, that can happen in one offseason. In most cases, it takes multiple years.

Are Auburn and Texas willing to be patient for that long? Who knows, but it seems like both are going to have to find success quickly or things are going to get interesting.

When the dust of a new hire settles, fans expect whoever the hire is to win. While it may not be realistic immediately, that is what fans can expect. Most logical fans understand that this is a process, but those voices are hardly the loudest.

Instead, you will hear about how Harsin and Sarkisian are inferior to their predecessors, and how they don’t know what they are doing. Both programs will take something different to win in the long run, as they are different programs.

Regardless, the honeymoon phase is over and reality has set in on these head coaches. Adversity has hit. Now, it is time to see how they respond.